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Have You Ever Wished Someone Was Dead?

The complicated psychology of homicidal thoughts.

  • A Frisco teenager told a counselor last year he was having homicidal thoughts about his father—three months before both his parents were fatally shot in their home.
  • A psychiatrist who treated accused Aurora mass murderer James Holmes testified in court recently that he was having thoughts of killing people three to four times a day.
  • On March 29, 1966, infamous sniper Charles Whitman told a psychiatrist he was thinking about "going up to the tower with a rifle and shooting people." Two months later, he shot 49 people, killing 14 strangers, his wife, and his mother.
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Time and again, we read stories about troubled individuals who were waving a red flag of warning again and again before they killed. Friends noticed, families worried, and coworkers avoided someone who seemed to be a ticking time bomb. In some cases, they tried to do something about it: In a New York Times review of 100 rampage killings, 34 concerned families or friends desperately had tried to get the person help before the murders but were unable to get professionals to take action.

How could mental-health professionals miss—or minimize—clear markers that signaled impending mayhem?

The Complicated Nature of Homicidal Thoughts

One reason is that homicidal fantasies are not uncommon: In 2000, Peter Crabb and associates surveyed 300 undergraduate students and found that 60 percent of the males and 32 percent of the women could describe a recent fantasy about killing someone, most often in response to a relationship breakup or an interpersonal dispute. A 2005 study yielded even more remarkable results, finding that more than 76% of young women and 91% of young men (survey of 977 young adults) reported having at least "one vivid, memorable homicidal thought." While some journalists have hypothesized that the way this data was collected my have possibly inflated the results, few of us would be shocked to learn that a friend or colleague had entertained a fleeting homicidal urge in the grips of anger or outrage.

Second, most people with homicidal fantasies never act on them. Homicidal thoughts can be triggered by a number of circumstances, events and feelings—sexual jealousy, betrayal, rejection by a loved one, a work dispute, public humiliation, or revenge. On rare occaisions, a mentally ill person develops delusions or command hallucinations that lead the individual to believe that murder is the only way to solve his or her problems. There is also a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder known as Harm OCD, during which a person has constant, severely distressing thoughts telling him or her to harm a person. Given these multiple triggers and diverse events, the challenge for the mental-health professional is to sort through which homicidal thoughts are most likely to lead to homicide.

When to Worry

I think it's normal to wish someone who has hurt you would die or disappear. Although not necessarily productive, I don't think it always worrisome to fantasize about ways to help that person along in his journey out of our lives. Unfortunately, many a person has failed to get the help they need out of the misguided fear that expressing a vague homicidal thought to a therapist will earn him or her an immediate ticket to the nearest inpatient unit.

However, homicidal thoughts can lead to intentions, which can lead to plans and motivate behavior, especially when:

  • substance abuse is involved
  • a person has a history of violent threats or behavior
  • a person is experiencing psychotic symptoms
  • a person has an intended target
  • a person has a specific, detailed plan
  • a person has access to guns or other weapons
  • a person gets pleasure from the homicidal thoughts
  • the homicidal thoughts are increasing or very frequent
  • a person has access to the intended victim
  • a person has voiced concern that s/he is worried they will act on these fantasies
  • a person feels hopeless or trapped

In general, the more detailed and achievable the homicidal fantasies, the greater the threat. A person who has an intended target and a fully formulated homicidal plan needs to be professionally assessed immediately - to protect any intended victim and to prevent the potential perpetrator from forever altering his life.

The Bottom Line

Homicidal thoughts don't often mean that a person will kill. They do mean something, though—for some, a cry for help; for others, a way to feel more in control; and for still others, a warning that something bad may happen. Getting help for persistent homicidal thoughts is something anyone should do. Finding out what is underneath the urge to kill may not just save an intended target's life; it may ultimately save the psyche of the sufferer.